Sushi Box usually gets lost in the galaxy of Japanese restaurants in Costa Mesa around the intersection of Bristol and Baker streets—no college kids à la Chaya Café, no lunchtime rush as at Mitsuwa, no devotees of perfection similar to those who worship Ikko or the ramen slurpers of Mentatsu. If anything, Sushi Box probably has the least-Japanese clientele of the area's roster: Every time I eat here, it is blue-collar stiffs of all ethnicities who occupy the few tables or wait around for a to-go order—the last group in Southern California to appreciate the art of a proper teriyaki bowl.
The simple meal—meat glazed in a teriyaki sauce, thrown on top of rice, then garnished with green onions—is a longtime staple of Orange County, one now mostly embraced by Latinos and best exemplified by the Mos 2 chain of Anaheim and Santa Ana. But at Sushi Box, this proletarian lunch sticks to its Japanese roots. Instead of dry white rice, each grain is buttery and soft; the chicken and beef, instead of getting a grilling to the point of carne asada, remain juicy, petal-like. And the teriyaki sauce isn't an assimilated, sugary glop, but rather judicious in its sweetness, lurking at the back of your palate until unleashing its umami glory. For a bit less than four bucks, a chicken teriyaki bowl just might be the most satisfying, cheap lunch outside of Little Saigon's bánh mì scene or the two-tacos-for-a-buck-and-free-pineapple-juice over at Tacos El Chavito in Huntington Beach.
But if you order a mere bowl at Sushi Box, you're ignoring its name: It's in its lunch-box special that the storefront dive's attention to detail emerges. The starter for this feast is a bowl of steaming miso soup. Rice and teriyaki are splayed across a Styrofoam container. On one side is a mound of tempura-battered veggies and shrimp, crunchy and succulent. On another section of the container sit four California rolls—not the best, but nevertheless tasty, especially when dragged through a better-than-usual wasabi. And while the salad with a light dressing is just a collection of roughage, you can tell Sushi Box takes pride in even this utilitarian rendition with its use of cherry tomatoes. There really isn't anything else to order here—though it sells sushi, skip it unless it comes with a box special—and that's perfectly fine: sometimes, what your famished, weary soul needs is mounds of rice and beef, and the teriyaki version of this pairing is glorious, with Sushi Box offering the genre's Lennon and McCartney.
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This column appeared in print as "Teriyaki-rific!"